In the run-up to recording her new album, local singer-songwriter Laurel Brauns dedicated herself to the study of her craft.
A veteran tunesmith, she was tired of the “mopey, folky” sound of her first three full-length albums, so she decided to “start from scratch” and went about relearning how to write a song.
“For so long, I thought I was so above buying (songwriting) books,” Brauns said in a telephone interview Monday. “And when I decided to do this album I was like, ‘Nope, I'm going to be humble and buy all the books and really start from the beginning and think about what makes a great song.'
“I totally nerded out and allowed myself to revisit the learning process,” she said. She also formed a songwriting group with Franchot Tone and Eric Tollefson.
“I sort of listen to music in a really different way now,” Brauns said. “And I really like that I can feel like I have all these tools in my belt.”
“Cliches are cliches for a reason,” she said without much hesitation. “Instead of running screaming from them, it's a good idea to think about why people use them all the time, but then twist them around so it doesn't sound like a cliche, but the sentiment is still there.”
Speaking of cliches: Near the end of this month, Brauns' life will come full circle when she moves to Portland to further her music career. It's where she went to college, where she cut her teeth on open-mic nights, and where she left when she moved to New Hampshire years ago ... to further her music career.
That worked. In New Hampshire — where Brauns, 33, grew up — she played regular gigs at colleges and coffeehouses, picking up steam until she just couldn't keep up anymore. In late 2007, she moved to Bend, where her sister lived (and lives) and the outdoor lifestyle beckoned.
“I was really bogged down with my music career in New England, and I got kinda burned out,” she said. “I was basically like, ‘What's something else that makes you happy besides music that you can put energy into for a little while?' And it was being outside.”
Four years later, Brauns has spent her share of time outside. She has hiked all over, used most of her vacation time on whitewater rafting trips, and learned to skate ski and kayak.
“I still can't do Class 4 (rapids) nor do I have a roll,” she said. “But you know, I'll get there.”
Tonight, Brauns will celebrate the release of her fourth album, “House of Snow,” with a show in Bend (see “If you go”). At 12 tracks and 42 minutes long, it's a compact slice of her life, merging Brauns' Central Oregon experiences with her love of indie-folk-pop and the independent artistic sensibilities of her soon-to-be home, Portland.
The latter comes in the form of several Portland-based guest musicians, including cellists Skip vonKuske and Anna Fritz of Portland Cello Project, organist Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists, and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cooper of Horse Feathers.
Additionally, Nathan Clark lends his sturdy baritone to the proceedings, Tone plays guitar on a couple of songs, and a chorus of locals take the second track, “Doldrums,” to an ethereal place. A twisted Okkervil River cover and Bend artist Kaycee Anseth's album art round out the impressive package.
Brauns snagged many of the guests through Portland Cello Project ringleader Douglas Jenkins, who produced the album. She met him at a PCP show in Bend 18 months ago, then collaborated with the group at a Tower Theatre concert, and then toured with them for a week last summer.
Brauns calls their connection “magical fate,” and you can almost hear some magic in the songs on “House of Snow.” First and foremost, they feature Brauns' easy-on-the-ears melodies and distinctively quivering vocals, which are guaranteed to mesh together and rattle around your brain for a good long while.
But tastefully placed instrumental touches — Conlee's organ, John Whaley's trumpet and so on — give “Snow” a warm, full timbre perfect for a quiet evening inside listening to music or a night outside around the fire pit.
It's that kind of imagery that not only colors Brauns' songs, but has colored her four years in Central Oregon. She said she considers Bend home, but that right now, a move to Portland makes sense.
“I need to be there to make it happen,” she said. “You've got to meet the people, shake their hands, see ‘em face to face. They've got to hear you play. I think we all delude ourselves (into thinking) the Internet's this hugely powerful thing that can make all this stuff happen for us, but there's nothing like actually talking to somebody.”
But as she returns to the town she once left and to a more spirited pursuit of her music, she's doing so in a more balanced way.
“(In New Hampshire), I had just gotten out of college and thought, ‘Oh God, I have to do all this to be some famous whatever,'” she said. “And now I don't care about that. I just want to have great gigs and kind of be working toward something, but also make sure I'm healthy and staying outside.”